Only 15 miles east of New Haven, Madison is a historic oceanfront town with centuries-old architecture and miles of public shoreline.
At Hammonasset Beach State Park you can lie back by Long Island Sound or spot wildlife along trails in protected woods and marshland.
Madison is much more than its shoreline, and has an authentic, pedestrian-friendly downtown with family-run shops, restaurants and entertainment to fall in love with.
One of the country’s best independent bookstores is right here, and there’s an art cinema with a history that can be traced back to 1912.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around Madison:
1. Hammonasset Beach State Park
The largest shoreline park in the whole of Connecticut takes up almost 1,000 acres of beach, marshland and coastal woodland south-east of Madison Center.
There’s two miles of natural sandy beach here, lined with a boardwalk and big enough so one of the state’s busiest attractions never feels overrun.
The beach is also a key nesting site for piping plovers, and portions may be roped off in summer.
You can rent bikes up to Labor Day to coast along a system of tree-shaded trails.
Also at the park is a campground with more than 500 units, and the Meigs Point Nature Center to help you interpret the park’s rich ecology.
2. Meigs Point Nature Center
Down at Hammonasset Point is an environmental learning center housed in a swish new building that opened in 2016. Exhibition spaces inside document the wildlife of the different habitats on the Connecticut shoreline, from the beach to the sky, woods and water.
There’s a little menagerie of live animals on display, all of which have been rescued and can’t be returned to the wild.
You’ll see turtles, amphibians, fish, crabs and snakes, and there’s a touch tank with horseshoe crabs for children.
The center runs programs like canoe trips, bird walks, sustainable arts and crafts, environment awareness workshops, science experiments, stargazing and beachcombing.
3. Madison Green Historic District
Madison Green dates back to 1705 when it was the site of a meeting house for what was then East Guilford.
From that time on, the green developed as a village center and later a town center when Madison was incorporated in 1826. The historic district has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982 and has lots of beautiful architecture on its margins or close by.
Along the Boston Post Road there’s a line of 18th and 19th-century houses, and further east is the Deacon John Grave House (more next). Around the green you’ll find the Lee Academy (1821), Academy Elementary School (1884), a community meeting building (1884), Memorial Hall (1896) and most impressive of all, the First Congregational Church from 1838. Go east along the Boston Post Road and you’ll be in Madison’s adorable commercial core, and we’ll talk in more detail about some of these independent businesses below.
There are concerts on the green every Sunday at 18:00 from the start of July to the end of August.
4. Deacon John Grave House
This colonial-era Saltbox house is one of the oldest buildings in Madison, dating back to 1681. It was named for John Grave I, who was a deacon at the first Guilford meeting house, and who also served as a town clerk in Guilford.
The house was actually built by his son John II, who ran a tavern here for a time in the early 18th century.
Remarkably the house would be home to a continuous line of Grave descendants through to 1933. Something curious about the Deacon John Grave House is a secret compartment in the attic behind the chimney, the purpose of which remains a mystery.
The house has no formal hours, but opens up for events , like a summer 2019 production of Into the Woods by the Madison Lyric Stage.
Groups and individuals can also take guided tours by appointment.
5. R.J. Julia Booksellers
Praised as one of the best independent bookstores, not just in Connecticut, but in the whole country, R.J. Julia opened in Madison Center in 1989. The store is a throwback to the days of large one-off bookstores, with amiable and knowledgeable staff, and a library both vast and diverse.
This has also become a stop for major authors on tours, and over the last 30 years Hillary Clinton, Anne Rice and Jane Fonda are just a few of the big names to have paid the store a visit.
There’s a whole wall full of signed photos from important visitors, and like many modern bookstores R.J. Julia has a cafe/bistro for light meals and sweat treats.
6. Madison Art Cinema
Another Madison institution, this intimate and personal cinema screens first-run independent and domestic movies, but local organizations also stage community events and fundraisers here.
The building goes back to 1912 when it opened as the Bonoff Theatre.
This started out as a single-screen cinema before being given a second auditorium when it was taken over by Hoyts Theatres in 1977. At various points in the building’s 100+ years it has also been used as a gymnasium and meeting hall, and there’s still a basketball court beneath the sloped wooden floor.
Madison Art Cinema is fitted with a state-of-the-art sound system (Dolby Digital, with JBL speakers), as well as opulent interior has an eye-catching color scheme of aquamarine, antique gold and a tone of red described as “Ming Red”.
7. Rockland Preserve
Over the last decade, this rugged 650-acre natural space in the very north of Madison has been turned into a mountain-biking paradise.
Singletracks of Rockland is an undulating tour of the property, dotted with exciting features, all made possible by many thousands of hours of work by volunteers.
There are 17 trails in total, running the gamut from easy (green circle) to extremely difficult (double black diamond). A GPS map is posted on the Madison Town website to help you find your way, and a basic code can be found at each entrance.
8. Henry Whitfield State Museum
This venerable house in Guilford will send you back to the earliest days of European settlement in Connecticut.
Constructed from local granite, the Henry Whitfield House has stood since 1639, built for the namesake Puritan minister who was one of the founders of the town.
This is the oldest house in the state and the oldest stone house in New England.
Whitfield lived here with his wife and nine children, but its hardy stone walls made it a place of refuge for Guilford’s townsfolk in the turbulent early years of settlement.
There are changing exhibitions about the period at the Visitor Center, and then you can take a guided or self-guided tour through the house, which is furnished with objects from the 17th to the 19th century.
Out in the grounds are centuries-old stone walls, a bronze statue of Whitfield and a genuine ship’s cannon dating from the War of 1812.
9. Chamard Vineyards
At Chamard Vineyards there’s a winery and bistro in a picture-perfect setting.
The vines here are carefully tended by hand, and grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay for single varietal wines.
Chamard’s grapes benefit from the moderating effect of Long Island Sound, just two miles away.
The tasting room is open to the public Tuesday to Sunday, and you can arrange a tour of the winery by appointment.
The bistro is a convivial 35-seater, with a French-inspired farm-to-table menu, for croque madames, pan-roasted organic chicken breast, spring-roasted lamb loin or steak frites.
10. The Shoreline Greenway Trail
A collaborative effort to make the shoreline of New Haven and Madison more accessible to walkers, people in wheelchairs and cyclists, the Shoreline Greenway Trail is a project still in its infancy.
So far three miles of safe, off-road trails have been set up, and the best of these can be found in Madison.
The Hammonasset segment is just over a mile long, and is one of Connecticut’s top four most trafficked walking and biking trails.
The path is vital to Madison, as it by-passes the dangerous Boston Post Road (Route 1) that runs parallel to the shore.
The path is shaded by trees for most of it course, and every so often you’ll be hit by majestic views of the sound and the state park’s glistening marshes.
11. Clinton Crossing Premium Outlet
This outdoor mall is laid out like a quaint New England village, and behind the clapboard storefronts at Clinton Crossing are savings of up to 65% from more than 70 designer brands.
Just for an idea of who’s here, you’ve got premium clothing brands like Polo Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Saks Fifth Avenue, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, as well as midmarket favorites and sports brands from Gap to American Eagle, Levi’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, Nike, Adidas, Asics, New Balance and Under Armor.
There’s also jewelry/accessories (Kay’s Jewelers, Swarovski, Fossil, Sunglass Hut),cosmetics (Luxury Beauty Store, Fragrance Outlet) and high-end cookware at Le Creuset.
And you could indulge in a scoop or two at Ben & Jerry’s or soft serve from Carvel.
12. The Audubon Shop
The Connecticut shoreline is a bird-watching hotspot, and Madison lays claim to what is thought to be the best shop for birders in the Northeast.
As well as being a great source for books, maps and gear like binoculars, telescopes, tripods and all manner of accessories, the Audubon Shop is a pillar of Madison’s bird-spotting community, organising year-round guided walks.
Maybe the most exciting time to be in town is during the fall migration, when you can set off with experts into Hammonasset Beach State Park to spot migrating eagles, hawks, songbirds, waterfowl and shorebirds.
Later in winter you can watch bald eagles down from Canada hunting along the Connecticut River.
13. Scranton Memorial Library
Gifted to Madison in 1901 by the wealthy resident, Mary Scranton, the town’s public library is still a valued resource.
The Scranton Memorial Library holds some 114,000 volumes and receives an average of 360 visits a day.
After an expansion 30 years ago, the original Renaissance Revival building is now home to the fantastic children’s department.
The library is a local cornerstone, with more than 850 programs a year, aimed at all age groups but especially wee ones, at workshops, storytimes and much more.
For grown-ups it’s also a peaceful place to get on with some work, offering free Wi-Fi and computers for public use.
14. Surf Club Beach
Despite the name, Surf Club Beach is open to the public and has an irresistible 365-metre arc of golden sand.
The surrounding park occupies 45 acres and borders a quiet residential area and Madison Country Club.
In terms of facilities there are playgrounds for children up to 12, basketball courts, athletic fields, bocce courts, horseshoe pits, sand volleyball courts, a concession stand open in summer and a launch for kayaks and sailboats.
As with some municipal beaches in Connecticut, seasonal passes apply, and these are restricted to residents.
15. East Wharf Beach
The same restrictions are in force in summer at another agreeable beach, this one on a piece of sandy shore littered with rocks and protected by wooden groynes.
East Wharf Beach has a rocky point poking out into the sound to the east, which makes it a beautiful place for early risers to watch the sun come up (you won’t need a pass at that time!). There’s a gazebo at the back where you can take a picnic and bask in the views, and an access point for roof-top boats.